A film review by Craig J. Koban


RANK: # 8


25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1967, R, 85 mins.

Clyde Barrow: Warren Beatty / Bonnie Parker: Faye Dunaway / C. W. Moss: Michael J. Pollard / Buck Barrow: Gene Hackman / Blanche Barrow: Estelle Parsons / Texas Ranger: Denver Pyle / C. W's Father: Dub Taylor / Eugene: Gene Wilder

Directed by Arthur Penn / Written by David Newman and Robert Benton.

"They're Young...They're In Love...And They Kill People!"

- Tag line from ‘BONNE AND CLYDE’.


There are films that are both great and influential, and Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, BONNIE AND CLYDE, straddles both hemispheres.


It certainly is one of the best films of the 1960's, but forty years after its release it has been lauded as one of the most important trendsetters of the medium.  It was a landmark work for how it drastically changed the aesthetic landscape of American movies.  It was the first effort of the "New Hollywood Era" that broke many established taboos of the film world.

If you watch the film with modern eyes and scrutiny, then BONNIE AND CLYDE is a fairly tame experience.  Certainly, we live in a relative smorgasbord of gore and mayhem (anyone doubting that assertion has not seen the trailer for the fourth SAW film).  Yet, to the unmolested eyes of the late sixties film goers, BONNIE AND CLYDE was a brutally and graphically violent biopic.  Controversial from the moment of its original release, the film came under strict condemnation for its glorification of thieves and murderers and for its astounding level of realistic violence.

BONNIE AND CLYDE was the first film to use "squibs" - small explosive devices that are mounted on actors, filled with red liquid, that would detonate and simulate a gun shot wound to a person.  The gunplay and mayhem in the film was absolutely unprecedented, especially in its final scene, which still remains one of the most brutally realized in the history of the movies.  Of course, BONNIE AND CLYDE - if released today - would barely qualify for an R rating (it has only a scant few foul words, some implied sexuality and obscured nudity), but it most definitely was scandalous for its time.  It’s depiction of violence and its proclivity to focus on societal undesirables would unalterably influence the making of other violent films of such a divergent nature, like THE WILD BUNCH, THE GODFATHER, BADLANDS, TAXI DRIVER, and even more contemporary films like GOODFELLAS, RESERVOIR DOGS, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, and PULP FICTION.  If there was a father to gritty and violent thrillers, than it would easily be BONNIE AND CLYDE.  The film was not the first to use violence, but it was the first to use incredibly realistic depictions of it for purely artistic aims.  It was the first piece of gun porn.

The film is ever so loosely based on the real life stories of Clyde Barrow (played in a career making performance by Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway, who was never more sexy and alluring), two Depression-era nobodies that rose quickly to fame as a result of their bank robbing and killing exploits.  Like many films about real life lowlifes, BONNIE AND CLYDE simultaneously romanticizes the duo and sort of deconstructs their own enigmatic status in the history of the period.  The film is way ahead of its time for its handling of the subject matter - oftentimes it's rather pointed and straightforward, but even more times its subtle and discrete.  The relationship between the two is played out like a great Greek tragedy and on the level of a romantic comedy.  The couple have the now obligatory "meet cute", fall head over heels in love, and are able to garner a considerable amount of audience empathy.  Like many other modern crime films, BONNIE AND CLYDE made their desperadoes likeable and charming.  Arthur Penn even goes as far as painting the pair as a couple of noble-minded Robin Hood figures (they rob banks, but only from rich fat cats, and never from destitute farmers).

Yet, the film does not hide behind any notion that the pair were capable of wanton violence.  They were killers, and Clyde in particular was capable of being a brutish thug.  What’s truly fascinating is how intuitive BONNIE AND CLYDE was at trying to reduce its larger than life personas down to flawed human beings.  Yes, the film is about robbers and killers and - on many basic levels - it deals with the insatiable lust that America had for outlaws and violence.  That is certainly one of the film’s legacies.  Yet, the film has two more intriguing elements: (1) One woman’s adoption of a violent lifestyle to fuel her sexual appetite and (2) one man’s sexual incompetency and inability to pleasure that woman.

Truly, many modern films today would have not had the time to deal with BONNIE AND CLYDE's latent sexual themes, especially those dealing with Clyde’s impotency and hinted at bisexuality.  There are many times in the film where Bonnie attempts to seduce Clyde into bed, but Clyde feels distant and clumsy in the sack.  At one point he throws Bonnie off of him while she tries to perform oral sex and pitifully states, "I told you I ain’t lover boy."  This scene is noteworthy and ironic, seeing as an earlier moment in the film shows Clyde’s seduction of Bonnie into his gang. He tells her he is a robber and a crook; she does not believe him.  He pulls out his gun and she immediately crumbles.  She sort of sinfully strokes the barrel with a ravenous excitement (the phallic imagery here is unavoidable) and realizes how truly exciting this potential life as a criminal has.  Of course, this scene points out that Clyde is so sexually incompetent that he uses his gun as a substitute for his penis whereas Bonnie, a sexually frustrated women, finds sexual release from seeing the gun and the implied level of escape it represents.

Freud would have had a field day with these two.

Clearly, Beatty should be given full props for his handling of the character and underlining material (he also served as the film’s producer).  He obviously saw the potential to fully realize the legendary outlaws as deeply flawed and humanistic folk heroes, but playing Clyde also helped to launch his career out of merely playing "pretty boy" characters, which critics of the time accused him of.  What a grand and bold move it must have been for Beatty - a charming and handsome leading man - to play such a vicious and dysfunctional thug that may or may not have been bisexual.

The legend of the film does start with Beatty.  Making BONNIE AND CLYDE was not an easy experience.  As famously reported, he knelt and begged at the feet of Warner Brother’s head Jack Warner to make the film.  The studio, having no faith in the project, gave Beatty an unheard of 40% of the box office grosses (seeing as the film went on to make over $50 million domestically, this can now be seen as a monumental blunder).  Securing a begrudging level of studio support was only the start of Beatty’s production woes.  He wanted Jane Fonda to play opposite of him, but she declined because of her unwillingness to relocate back to the US (she was living in France at the time).  Beatty also wanted Francois Truffaut as the director, but he later backed out to make his dream project, FAHRENHEIT 411.  Cinema scholars are mixed on how much of an active contribution he made to the final film; some believe that he managed to work on the screenplay.

After Truffaut left, Beatty approached Jean-Luc Goddard, who quickly balked.  Then Arthur Penn stepped in, who previously made MICKEY ONE, a very unsuccessful art house film.  His work on BONNIE AND CLYDE created a strong upward spiral of success for him and those around him.  He later would make ALICE’S RESTAURANT, NIGHT MOVES and LITTLE BIG MAN.  The writers as well saw bright careers ahead of them: Robert Benton would become a crucial America director (KRAMMER VS. KRAMMER).  Dunaway would become a major screen presence, as would Beatty, the latter having critical success as an Oscar winning director in his own right.

BONNIE AND CLYDE’s story is straightforward and clear and avoids gimmicks and needless exposition.  We are given a montage of title cards and pictures, which very quickly immerses us into the past world of Bonnie and Clyde.  We are then whisked away to a day of relative normalcy where in a go-nowhere Texas Town a depressed and frustrated young woman, Bonnie, meets up with an Clyde.  It seems that Clyde is about to steal her mother’s car, making this one of the most odd meet cutes ever.  From this simple meeting the film then catapults itself into the main narrative.  Within no time Bonnie has joined Clyde more as a inquisitive onlooker, but she eventually challenges him to perform a robbery.  From that point on after the first robbery, they become an inseparable couple (their first kiss and escape from a robbery is accentuated with "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" by Flatt and Scruggs, now an immortal part of the movie) and are on the run.

Early efforts at bank robbing are humorous (the first bank they go to is actually out of money), but their appetite for more robbing does not stop.  Soon, they start to collect people that will form their law breaking entourage.  They pick up a lowly gas station attendant named C.W. Moss (well played by Michael J. Pollard), who is used as a getaway driver and mechanic.  They also pick up Clyde’s brother, Buck (in an early great performance by Gene Hackman) and his constantly irritating wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons, in a wonderful performance).  With the Barrow Gang complete, they set themselves on achieving criminal notoriety.  Soon, they become a legend in the newspapers, despite the fact that they are also up on murder charges.  Soon, the forces of the law hunt them down one at a time until all that is left is Bonnie and Clyde and one inevitable showdown with the police.

The film’s story structure is lean and efficient and does a virtuoso job of covering all of the particulars with a minimal of fuss.  A lesser film would have wasted time with introductions; Penn’s surefire directional eye and the sharp screenplay ensures that all of the fat has been skimmed off.  What we have is clear and concise storytelling: we are quickly introduced to the outlaws, then we see them in their prime (robbing banks, collecting a posse, and in one instance, capturing and humiliating a Texas Ranger).  After that comes the slow downfall of the gang, which includes their own emotional implosion, not to mention Buck’s death, Blanche’s imprisonment, Buck’s somewhat reluctant betrayal, and - of course - Bonnie and Clyde’s infamous deaths.

The film has come under some scrutiny for historical accuracy, which to me is the hobgoblin of small mined thinking.  The measure of a historical film’s worth does not just reside solely in accuracy, but also in its implementation and handling of the material.  Certainly there are aspects that have been either truncated or altered altogether (Moss is actual a composite character, the Texas Ranger that was captured and released by the gang only met Bonnie and Clyde on the day of their execution, and Blanche Barrow - who was alive when the film opened - greatly objected to the accuracy in the portrayal of her part).  There are also some questions as to the time frame of the robberies and killings, not to mention whether or not Bonnie and Clyde did have sex at all.

It does not matter, because the film works marvelously despite any inaccuracies.  If anything, BONNIE AND CLYDE will be remembered for how incredibly well it handles all of its disparaging tones.  The film covers a lot of territory: it’s a romance, a keystone cops inspired comedy, a police procedural, and a 1930's gagster film all done with modern and revolutionary techniques.  The film was heavily influenced by the French New Wave of film making pioneers and auteurs.  Penn deliberately filmed many scenes with different styles.  At one moment the violence and gunplay is comic and slapstick and then later is juxtaposed against graphic carnage.  This has the effect of keeping the audience off balance and not letting them off of the hook.  The editing at times is decidedly choppy and fragmented and this heightens the tension (particularly in the closing shootout), and the cinematography is also intentionally displaced in many scenes.  Opening moments of the film that show Bonnie meeting Clyde are shot with a bright color palette and later scenes - showing a sad reunion between Bonnie and her aging mother - are filmed with darker and more desolate sepia tones, underling the dread.  One shot in particular is astonishing: it shows Clyde racing after Bonnie as she escapes into a wheat field.  The camera pans up slowing and then a dark ominous cloud hurries by and drowns out the sun, casting a shadow over them on the field.  No CG here, folks!  Just miraculous timing.

BONNIE AND CLYDE was not universally loved upon released.  It did not initially do well at the box office and some critics labeled the film as a savage bastardization of history, not to mention corrupting young minds with its images of criminals and their crimes (something many critics today chastise films for).  Subsequent re-releases made critics and film goers take attention.  The film also became an Oscar darling as well (Estella Parsons rightfully won a Best Supporting Oscar, and the film also took home an award for Best Cinematography; almost all of the other participants, from Beatty to Dunaway to Hackman to Penn, all were nominated).  The film was rated number 27 of the AFI’s GREATEST HUNDRED MOVIES, was voted #13 for the top 100 American Thrillers, and would go on to be a prestigious selection as one of a few handful of films that were placed in the National Film Registry.  The film also had pervasive pop culture influences: the ubiquitous use of the line "We rob banks" in BONNIE AND CLYDE is routinely voted as one the greatest lines in the history of the movies.

Without a doubt, BONNIE AND CLYDE - forty years after its release - is a great and important film.  It has been called "the first American film" and its influences can easily be traced into the future works of acclaimed directors like Terrence Malik, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, and Quentin Tarantino.  It's largest accolade perhaps is that it came, as Roger Ebert once wrote, as a "slap in the face" to the modern movie world, where films of the time were dominated by formulas and conventions.  That’s what great films do: They have the perseverance to stand up and proudly proclaim "We are going to do things a bit differently."  There have been crucial films in the history of the medium that have unalterably changed how films were made, like THE BIRTH OF A NATION, THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, CITIZEN KANE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, STAR WARS...and BONNIE AND CLYDE...for certain.

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